James Barnes: Fantasy Variations on a Theme by Nicolo Paganini

In no particular order, I'm going through a list of 5 of what I would consider my "Desert Island Band Literature", essentially pieces that if I were to be stranded on such an island I would be remiss without.  Of course, it's by no means a concrete list, but I thought it would make for a fun series since I haven't posted about too much wind band music yet.  For this week we have a long one (and thus we are breaking the rules once again on overall length- womp womp).  The Fantasy Variations on a Theme by Nicolo Paganini by James Barnes (b. 1949) totals over 16 minutes in length, and boasts 20 separate variations on Paganini's own 24th Caprice. We've got a lot to talk about today, but first- I know last week was a bit morose, but I assure you: we're bringing the funny back this week.

So the first gentleman we've already mentioned- Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840) was an early Romantic era composer and violinist.  It was from his work, the 24 Caprices for violin (the 24th movement specifically) from which James Barnes created his piece.  So your first question might be, what the heck is a caprice?

Ghost-riding the whip is no way to go through life, son...

Music terminology can be confusing at best, irritatingly befuddling at worst.  Through musical history, words sometimes change meaning age to age.  Generally speaking, caprices or capriccios are short musical works, usually without any distinct form and they are often designed to showcase the abilities of the virtuosic performer.  Paganini's caprices fit this bill directly.  Each one of the 24 exhibited a facet of his playing, demonstrating his capability on the violin.  They were written as etudes, but it would be years later before any mortal violinist would scratch the surface of these works.  

Paganini may or may not have resorted to supernatural forces to acquire his prowess at playing violin.  It was not a topic he would dispute.  He was a strange looking man to begin with, but he typically arrived at concerts dressed in all-black, riding in a black carriage pulled by black horses.  Contrasting sharply with his macabre accouterments, his countenance was pale and deathly.  Historians today believe that he may have been afflicted with Marfan's syndrome, the symptoms of which include a tendency to grow very tall and possess long slender limbs and thin fingers.  Coincidentally, the long, thing fingers crafted of his genetic disorder might have been part of his extraordinary capability on the violin.  Another symptom of Marfan's is poor circulation, which would cause a person's hands to consistently be cold.  He also lost his teeth in 1828, leading to a gaunt, skeletal face.  So, put it all together: wicked-good violin chops, thin, slender frame, ghost face, hands as cold as ice, dresses like a 19th century Ozzy Osbourne.  

Paganini: the Anti-Charlie.

The other part of Paganini's story that's interesting is the fact that he was both praised and feared.  On two occasions he borrowed violins to perform with and after using them was told to keep them since the original owners feared that the evil power Paganini possessed had tainted the instruments.  At the same time, women (and men) went nuts for him.  Think Elvis/Beatles nuts.  Paganini had no problem showing off his ridiculous technique for crowds, but his extravagant life of concerts, women, and fiddling came at a cost to his health.  Paganini suffered from various illnesses much of his life, and died at the age of 58 in 1840.  What's weird is that he wasn't actually buried until 1876.  The Catholic church refused him a burial because of his reputed association with the Devil and also probably due to the fact he refused his last rites, from his thinking he wasn't as close to death as he unfortunately was.  The other weird part is he was exhumed some time later by his grandson for a final viewing (at the behest of another violinist) and finally reburied for a final time.

Mr. Barnes honors Paganini in a lengthy rendition of his 24th Caprice.  It follows a similar format as the caprice in that the whole concept of any theme and variations is that you start with a relatively short piece of music and then expand upon it, introducing it in a new and unique way.  Sometimes it's faster, slower, played in a different style, etc.  In this case, Mr. Barnes was writing this piece as commissioned by the United States Air Force for their band to perform.  They required a piece that would feature every section of the band in kind.  You will hear the piece begin with a boisterous introduction that leads into a jaunty double-reed exposition which pronounces the main theme.  This is played twice, the second time around it's full band.  From there we go into variation land (like I said, 20 in total), so how many you wish to listen to is of course entirely up to you.  The conclusion features the full band just as it was in the beginning.  

My own personal experience with this piece was in college.  The technical gymnastics thrust upon each individual section as they are sequentially exposed is enough to make this piece a bit too difficult to perform by most high school bands, the other crippling factor is the length.  Often times it is performed in part, usually bearing weight on which parts can actually be played.  When you've got 17 minutes worth of music to rehearse, it's a lot of work to get underway.  But dammit if it ain't fun to play!  

The featured performers this time are the Swedish National Wind Band performing in Stockholm.

Homework: Find a variation you enjoy, write about how you feel Mr. Barnes altered the melody to cater to the featured section.  

See you next Friday.